Moving out

Willy Vlautin on his new book, gentrification in the West, and breaking up with Reno after The Motel Life

If John Steinbeck and Tom Waits ever hung out at a dive bar, they might end up talking about Willy Vlautin. For the past 20 years, the Reno native has commanded modern American Western fiction through his novels while fronting rock band Richmond Fontaine until its dissolution in 2016. He now plays with the alt-country group The Delines. In his music and his writing, Vlautin has found fans around the world through his unflinching portrayals of class struggle, addiction, poverty and family.

I spoke with him about his recently published sixth novel, The Night Always Comes, which centers around the relationship between a young woman and her intellectually disabled brother as she tries to secure enough money to buy the house they share with their mother in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Before we start talking about books, how did you spend this past year in quarantine?

I mean, I got lucky. I live outside of Portland, Oregon, on the foothills. I live in the woods, and it was the first time in 20 years I was home for the entire year. I got to see fall in its entirety and spring in its entirety for the first time in 20 years. I got a new dog, and I was able to work on the first draft of a novel from start to finish for the first time ever because I didn’t have to do band stuff or travel.

You’ve said in the past that your characters aren’t necessarily based on real people, but Lynette and Kenny’s bond seems so specific in the way she cares for him in The Night Always Comes.

Most families struggle. Most families have a lot of baggage, and I was interested in a family that hasn’t had the ability to move with the times. Kenny’s a developmentally disabled adult—he’s 32 years old when you meet him. It’s a 57-year-old mother and her 30-year-old daughter, and they all live together and they’re trying to just get by to take care of the brother. And it’s just like, how does this family survive when the rules change? Meaning, when housing prices quadruple in 20 years, and rent’s at least tripled, and minimum wage has only gone up once or twice. I was interested in that idea of how a family stays together through that.

Was there some first-hand knowledge that went into writing their characters?

Yeah. I worked with a guy that was really grumpy—always haggard. I thought maybe he drank a lot. I was working in a restaurant equipment repair shop … I was just riding with this guy once and he was my least favorite guy there. We came to a stoplight, and a really severely disabled man was trying to walk across the street and it took forever. When the guy passed, he looked over at me and goes, “Man, thanks for not making fun of that guy.” And then he just unloaded on me.

One of his kids had severe disabilities, and the reason he looked like shit and was such an asshole is because he had a night job—so he had two jobs. So, you never know what people are going through. … You always gotta be kind to them, and give them space and give them respect, because you don’t know what’s on their back or what kind of weight they carry. 

The American Dream is a big theme in The Night Always Comes. What does it look like to you?

I mean, I think the American Dream is home ownership—meaning you own something, and you don’t have some rich guy pushing you around and raising your rent, and telling you how you can paint your house, or how you’re supposed to live. By owning property, by owning a little house, you got a little power.

Many of your characters suffer tragedy and loss. In comparing Lynette’s struggles with poverty to Frank and Jerry Lee from The Motel Life, what qualities do your characters need to survive their hardships in life?

Every story I write for different reasons, so that’s a hard question to answer. Obviously, every situation or every character is different. They’re the same in the fact that they come from my heart—they come from my dented head, I guess. And then in other ways, they’re completely different.

So, with Frank and Jerry Lee, I was interested in how the way I was, Jesus, all through my 20s, into my 30s … just kind of sliding around. I worked bad jobs, and I didn’t like myself and I stayed out all night. Then, when you’re forced to try to be a man or stand up and be a good citizen, it’s really hard. I was interested in that idea in Motel Life.

I guess the theme, if there is a theme through some of my books, it’s that damaged people have a hard time. I think most of my characters are damaged in some way. I mean, hell, most people got dents and scars to them. Mine do as well. What made me sit down and write The Night Always Comes was that I was watching Portland change, like Reno changed, where it was once a really great city for working class people. Now the working-class people are getting pushed out and pushed aside.

Maybe 10 years ago, when I was graduating from UNR, people were talking about Reno being the next Portland. Would you want to see that happen?

Well, I think it already has. Portland is just successful. They’ve had a lot of—like Reno—a lot of real estate investment companies putting in a lot of money and buying land and putting up apartment buildings and condos. Reno’s had that going on, so in that regard, they’re both just really successful cities that people want to live in. And why wouldn’t you want to live in Reno? I mean, it’s gorgeous. And Portland is one of America’s great cities.

The problem with both, and probably Reno’s going to it get worse, is just unchecked growth. No city can grow that big and do it well.